We might go back to work soon. But our commute will look very different.

As restrictions relax, the traffic returns, the hum of the city lifts, and people tentatively emerge back onto the streets.

With most states and territories now in stage one of Scott Morrison’s three-phase plan, Australians are returning to work in small numbers, starting to fill the highways and byways with traffic once more.

The pressure on the public transport system to provide a safe and swift return is climbing.

As NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said last week, “overseas, public transport unfortunately was the main reason why the disease spread”.

Video via ABC

So how will our commute change? Significantly so, explains Associate Professor in Infrastructure Management Matthew Beck from the University of Sydney.

Part of the focus of the national cabinet this past week has been on this topic, with all state jurisdictions planning how to best manage peoples’ return to public transport.

Here’s what we know about the future of your commute, according to an expert.

Commute restrictions and cleaning requirements.

public transport covid
More and more Australians will begin returning to work. Image: Getty.

With active coronavirus cases still prevalent in most Australian states and territories, implementing measures to mitigate the risk of community transmission will be a top concern for officials mapping out the return to normal.


“The measures will be a mix of having to enforce social distancing on public transport, which obviously will reduce the capacity of public transport, and an increased level of cleaning, above and beyond what is normally done,” Associate Professor Matthew Beck explains.

Governments may enforce the social distancing measures implemented for restaurants, where one person requires four square metres of space.

In Australia, the average bus would normally carry about 60 people.

“If full social distancing was going to be applied, that bus would carry somewhere between six to ten people. So you are looking at a significant reduction in the capacity of that network.”

As for keeping the public transport system coronavirus-free, Beck says the biggest issue with cleanliness will be sick people getting on to public transport networks. “And there's very little that transport authorities can actually do about that.”

Hence, people need to take seriously the health advice to stay home and not travel if experiencing any symptoms of sickness.

“I definitely think in the medium to long term, we will see an increase in the demonstrable level of cleaning that public transport has,” Beck adds.

Listen: The risk and reality of a COVID19 second wave in Australia. Post continues below audio. 

Rush hour

“The peak hours with the numbers of people that were traveling pre-COVID are still some time away, because a lot of the peak hour activity is driven by large employment centres in central locations,” Beck explains. “And those office blocks are also going to have to grapple with social distancing.”

Stage three of Morrison’s plan allows public gatherings of up to 100 people, hence, Beck says this will allow buses, for example, to hold their full capacity.

“When we get to stage three, basically public transport will return to more or less normal capacity. Then, it will be less about capacity and more about what public transport is doing to make people feel comfortable that it is a clean and safe mode.

“Instead of cleaning a train and picking up the rubbish at the end of every run and then cleaning the trains thoroughly overnight, it will probably need a strong clean at the end of every time it terminates.

“If people can see that happening, then I think people will be more comfortable with that as a mode of transport.”

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Rush hour in Sydney, in pre-pandemic times. Image: Getty.

Staggered start times and alternative transport methods.

To relieve pressure on the trains, busses and roads, it is likely that companies will be encouraged to allow their employees to work from home for the foreseeable future, or implement staggered start times to reduce peak hour traffic.

Or, more people will likely find alternative forms of transport such as a walking or riding a bike. According to 7News, the government is considering setting up temporary bike lines.

“That'll definitely help significantly with the flow of transport traffic.”

How apps may help.

In some cities in China, residents can pre-book a seat on buses and trains.

Associate Professor Matthew Beck says "that extreme would be difficult to roll out somewhere in Australia, but definitely there are applications".

"There are apps that allow people to see when trains and buses are busy... It might be a case of them taking those applications and changing them a little bit so they become quite easy to use.

"The basic basic theme is to look at the transit numbers through the system and send potential travellers a message about how full that transport system is." 

The government has already adopted the use of apps, with COVIDSafe, which uses bluetooth to register the details of any person you come into contact with for more than 15 minutes.

It is expected that the government will announce the new rules and measures for public transport this week, and they will apply for up to two months, reports 7News.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

Read more on COVID-19:

Feature image: Getty.

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